Once again Dia de Muertos or Day of the Dead is upon us in Mexico. Last November was my first experience with this annual celebration. Since I had never seen Disney’s, Coco, I had imagined my own dark version of this event.
After all, if skeletons play a major role it made sense to me that horror would accompany them. Boy was I wrong. Dia de Muertos is not about darkness, fear or sorrow. The celebration is instead filled with light, joy and remembrance of people who have passed away and is marked by much tradition and symbolism.
Dia de Muertos begins the day after Halloween, November 1st but other than their close proximity on a calendar, the two have almost nothing in common. The beginnings of the holiday date back to the prehispanic cultures of Mesoamerica when the Aztecs among others paid homage to the dead. Overtime, this crossed with traditional teachings of Catholicism which resulted in the combination of pagan and religious symbols observable during the multi day celebration. While Dia de Muertos originated in Mexico, it is celebrated throughout Latin America and in Latino communities around the world. Depending on the location the celebrations have their own traditions.
Families prepare weeks prior to the holiday by cleaning gravesites and building altars for loved ones. During this time stores fill their shelves with supplies needed to honor loved ones. Marigolds, sugar skulls, grains, incense, breads, colorful banners and candles seem to burst out of the smallest mom and pop shops as well as the local Walmart.
Altars, oferendas, are constructed to house items meant to welcome the spiritual return of those who have passed. What is placed on the altar varies by regional areas of Mexico and are as individual as the people for whom they are assembled. Families arrange altars in their home or at the cemetery where their loved ones were laid to rest. Altars are also found throughout town in restaurants, shops and even grocery stores. These very personal shrines are meant to create a union between the worlds of the living and the dead.
While each altar is unique they do contain common symbolic elements. A white or brightly colored tablecloth and a pile of salt represent purity and joy. Candles of faith and hope light the way for loved ones to return and are often placed in the shape of a cross or positioned like cardinal directions to guide the dead. Incense burns to remove “bad vibes” while a cross of ashes helps a loved one atone for sins. Bright orange and yellow strings of marigolds are looped across altars and bunches of flowers are placed in vases. These create a beautiful place and add a fragrant scent to encourage the deceased. Skulls made of decorative sugar, calaveritas, remind everyone that death is not something to fear but instead is simply a part of life. Small sugar skulls represent lost children and larger ones symbolize adults. These sugary models are often accompanied by skull art and poems, calaveras literarias. These comical pictures and anecdotal rhymes are intended to remember the moment death arrives in a humorous manner. These are read aloud as family members are fondly remembered. Local news, radio stations and schools even hold contests with cash prizes for winning entries of calavera art and poetry.
A child’s altar, might house a toy representation of the mystical Mexican hairless dog, itzcuintli or another toy to help guide the child in their cross over. Adult alters display prized possessions of those gone before. Looking at an altar even a stranger can learn a great deal about the one being honored.
Food and drink are flowing for Dia de Muertos. Glasses of water are meant to quench the thirst of the travelers. Small bottles of favorite drinks are also present. Favorite foods of the deceased are served over the two days and a plate is set aside for visiting souls. Pan de muerto, bread of the dead, is a common food item. This sweet bread is topped with tear shaped designs and dusted with seeds, sugar and cinnamon. An altar can be created for many members of the same family and each member is honored with an individual portrait on display. Details of each altar is beautiful and personally welcome the return of souls departed in hopes that they will once again be part of a literal and figurative gathering with living members of their family.
During this time brightly colored intricate cut paper banners, papel picado, often including skeleton or skull images wave overhead in streets and public areas. Flowers fill shop windows and noise makers, festive music and parades enhance the setting. It is common to run into men, women and children with elaborately painted skull faces dressed in finery on their way to family celebrations.
Dia de Muertos lasts for two full days with the first day, Dia de los Angelitos/Inocentes, Day of the Little Angels/Innocents, beginning at the stroke of midnight. This is when all children who have passed are believed to be reunited with their loved ones for 24 hours. The following day, Dia de los Difuntos, Day of the Deceased, opens the opportunity for adults to reunite. The two are celebrated on different days and sometimes family members make changes to the altars each day. Both days are celebrated in a positive, joyful remembrance of loved ones.
Monarch butterflies, mariposas monarca, play an interesting role in Dia de Muertos. While monarchs born in early spring only live about four weeks, those that reach adulthood in mid August begin a long migration south. Instead of surviving a mere month, these fourth generation butterflies somehow travel south beginning as far away as Canada arriving for the winter in Mexico on or about November 1st. Because of this scientific phenomenon these monarch butterflies are believed to hold the spirits of the deceased. Just last week I began to notice the arrival of the black and orange beauties fluttering about. True or simply symbolic, what a legacy they carry with each flap of their delicate wings.
Next Sunday, is the start of Dia de Muertos. As George Eliot would say, “Our dead are never dead to us until we have forgotten them.” While social distancing will limit the giant outdoor celebrations there is no doubt Mexicans as well as other Latinos will be honoring, remembering and celebrating their loved ones.
NOTES: I have more than likely made a mistake somewhere in this blog entry with regard to symbolism and meaning of Dia de Muertos. I am admittedly still a student in understanding Mexican culture. Due to limited access to celebrations this year, some of the photos included are from websites. I want to acknowledge the use of these photos in this entry.
October 27, 2020
“After all, to the well organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.”– Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.